Can I get a round of applause for our United States Congress? Yes, indeedy, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for both Democrats and Republicans! They have miraculously come together to approve one of the only major pieces of legislation set to become law this year. Amazing.
It was a rare moment as the U.S. Senate put the needs of American citizens before party loyalty and overwhelmingly approved a sweeping package of bills aimed at alleviating our epidemic of opioid deaths.
How significant is the opioid crisis? According to preliminary numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 71,000 Americans died of overdoses in just a one-year period, a majority from heroin and other street drugs laced with the insidious synthetic opioid fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and so deadly that just a few flakes of it can kill. It has typically been shipped into the United States by criminals from China and Mexico, according to U.S. law enforcement.
The CDC reports that between March 2017 and March 2018, more of our fellow citizens died from overdosing on drugs than all Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Or, as one succinct report put it, “The rising overdose numbers make the drug epidemic more deadly than gun violence, car crashes or AIDS, which have never killed as many people in a single year.”
And this was no one-time phenomenon. Drug overdose deaths have been steadily rising for several years.
So, excuse my French, but what the hell has taken Congress so long to react? This Senate bill still must be reconciled with the House-passed opioid control bill, and according to reports, the plan is to quickly get a final version to the president so he can sign it ASAP.
What are we to make of the fact that this rare bipartisan Senate vote finally came just weeks before the midterm elections? Any thinking person would wonder if this flurry of sudden activity was sparked by a true desire to help curb the scourge of fentanyl-overdose deaths or a desire to look attentive to the voters back home.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the sponsor of the all-encompassing package of anti-opioid initiatives, proudly announced it was the work of “over 70 senators, five committees and countless staff.” Have you ever tried to get 70 people to agree on anything in a timely manner? Given that tens of thousands of Americans are dying, I, for one, would like to have seen a more streamlined, faster approach to tackle this crisis.
While the pending package of legislation is certainly not a panacea, it is seen as including some very specific and important targets. It designates $10 million in grant money each year (through 2023) to help states staff drug recovery centers that will assist addicts with medically supervised withdrawal management, housing and job training. And an interagency task force is to be established to focus on opioid exposed newborns and traumatized children who may be susceptible to future drug abuse.
Among the plan’s most significant elements are an increase in the punishment for fentanyl trafficking and distribution and funding for the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, aka the STOP Act.
STOP will require the U.S. Postal Service to be more vigilant when accepting international mail and packages. Currently, private carriers such as FedEx, UPS and DHL are required to keep track of where international mail comes from, where it’s going and its declared content, and if something looks suspicious, they are obligated to call in the feds to check it out. Criminals who illegally ship deadly fentanyl know this about the private shipping companies, so they had turned to the less vigilant U.S. Postal Service to make their illicit deliveries.
If the new Postal Service initiative can stem the tide of this poison coming into the United States, it could significantly reduce overdose deaths.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman sponsored the STOP Act portion of the legislation and wrote a recent opinion column explaining the urgent need to control the epidemic. Last year, he said, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized about 1,500 pounds of fentanyl. In just the first five months of 2018, Customs found and confiscated more than 1,000 pounds. According to Portman, 1,000 pounds of fentanyl is enough to kill about a quarter-billion people.
Think about that, not just for the sake of those addicts who ingest fentanyl; imagine if fentanyl were to fall into the hands of would-be terrorists bent on poisoning the nation’s food chain or water supply.
Congress took way too much time figuring out pointed solutions and writing legislation to tackle this growing and formidable calamity. The “leaders” in the Senate apparently didn’t see the urgency in bringing the package up for a vote before now. In the meantime, tens of thousands of Americans died. They may have been drug addicts, but they were human beings who deserved to have their government protect them. Why did it take so long?
— Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.